One of the areas of Puget Systems that I oversee is the collection and dissemination of feedback from customers. You may have experienced our dedication to this process -- a critical component in delivering the Puget Systems experience.
We focus on feedback because we recognize the nature of the relationship we have with every single one of our customers. Like any good relationship, it requires both talking and listening. Can you think of a healthy relationship where one person does all the talking? Too many times, companies invest huge amounts of resources on messaging -- manipulating, adding nuance or changes -- when it could come more naturally when you introduce listening into the organization.
The feedback process is our way to ensure we are listening to customers.
There are some challenges that come along with collecting feedback. Let me identify a couple we encountered and share with you what we do to overcome these challenges.
Keys to Better Customer Feedback
1. Committing real resources to the process.
I won't say exactly what our annual spend is on the entire feedback process -- collection, analysis, dissemination and action -- but it is comfortably north of $100,000 a year. Not a small investment for a small company, but one worth every penny.
Some companies -- even large ones -- try to spend as little as possible on feedback, or they focus on the cost per interaction. This is a terrible way to look at it. Don’t cop out and look for the cheapest solution. Instead, you need to commit substantial resources to this endeavor. Feedback not just a checkbox to mark off on your company’s LinkedIn profile to "prove" you care. Let me put it this way: If your feedback process consists of only a web form sent out as part of an automated process, then I don't think you care all that much at all. Focus on quality, not quantity.
2. Prepare to be uncomfortable.
Remember those teenage years, when you went through a growth spurt? I remember how bad my joints hurt. Sleepless nights and hobbling through the day are common for young people growing into adulthood. In much the same way, your business will experience pain as it grows; physically, financially and emotionally. Pain is part of growth, and growth means change. Be prepared: your customers might say some things that are not so fun to hear, but this....this is the gold.
World class athletes, chess grandmasters, top programmers, designers or chefs — really anyone trying to be the best in their field — they aggressively pursue the identification and mitigation of weaknesses; perhaps turning them into strengths. One observation of this was in my time working for a major league baseball team. I can remember seeing many world class hitters review tape of their at-bat as soon as they were back in the dugout — even if they smashed the long bomb. They wanted to see what could be improved.
Be humble. Get over yourself. You can do better and your customers really want you to improve.
3. Don't confuse applause for feedback.
When people tell you, "everything is perfect, you nailed it, don't change a thing," that's not really feedback, that is applause. Applause is good to hear, good for morale, it can keep you motivated and inspired, but it is not feedback. Also, straight venom or vitriol is not feedback.
Seth Godin has been a large help when it comes to discerning between feedback and this other type of input. You should be reading his stuff. I am not telling you to block out applause. Enjoy it, but do not make the mistake of assuming that's how you are actually performing.
4. Have empathy for your customer.
Giving feedback is a risky proposition for customers. I am sure you have a few noisy customers that might give you the impression that feedback comes easy for everyone. That is simply not the case. I bet you have been to a restaurant, had a less than satisfactory experience, and when the server came to your table to ask how everything is, you replied, "fine." I am as guilty as the next.
Why do we do that?! It's a lack of trust. You don't trust the establishment really cares if you are having a good time or not. You don't trust that they won't smile, then spit in your food before they bring that steak back out the way you wanted it done. (Side note: well done steaks are also known as burnt)
This is really the challenge, and perhaps the most difficult point I can make. You can't simply set up a feedback process and expect to hit the feedback gold vein if your customers think you don't care. There are organizations that project an attitude from the very first interaction that either expresses indifference, malaise or even worse, distain towards the customer. For these companies, you don't need feedback, you need a gut check on why you come to work every day.
5. Don't get defensive.
This is the fastest way to kill feedback. Getting defensive when you hear feedback makes people wonder why you asked in the first place. This is a gift, so treat it that way.
6. Empower your people fix things…immediately and without you.
The feedback process is an excellent time to turn a customer into a fan. A critical step in our feedback process was the empowerment and tooling of our front line employees to fix problems on the spot. We have all heard, "I have to check with my manager.” Not impressive. What if instead, your employee fixed the problem on the spot, no approval needed? That is an infinitely better customer experience.
I challenge you to push every authority and decision down to the lowest level on the org chart it can go, then push it down one more level. Are we perfect at this? Nope. Organizations inherently will gain mass -- policy or otherwise -- over time. Making sure employees are empowered is like fighting back the tide: it takes vigilance. Remember, every policy you make communicates you trust your people and your customers a little less.
The second piece — and this could be a blog post all its own — is to back your people even when you don't agree. Like getting defensive, constantly second guessing your people is the fastest way of shutting down the desire to help your customers. If you are worried that someone can sink the whole ship when given this authority, then you have been doing a poor job of leading and training your people.
People like being the hero, give them a cape and get out of the way.
7. Listen to the music, not just the notes.
Do not treat every piece of feedback as an action item. Some things can be made into checkboxes, those are the notes. You need to sit back and hear what is being said, then compare and contrast that with what is being communicated to you by others. This is listening to the music and helps shape the big picture. You can pull themes out of the combination of several pieces of feedback that, at first glance, seemed disparate. This can take weeks or months to happen. I keep a folder of past feedback and often read back through it, paying attention to the notes, but intently listening for the music.
8. Let people know the investment is worth it.
When you act on feedback, let your customers know what you did and why you did it. It was them! Their feedback! And not just some general announcement, although that is fine too. The real valuable interaction is going back to those customers who gave you that specific feedback and showing them the fruits of their labor. In our experience, you will only see the frequency and quality of feedback rise from those reconnected customers.
There is so much more to share, but this post has gone on without structure long enough. It is a borderline ramble. Let me leave you with two thoughts. First, always err on the side of the customer. Second, genuinely care and make sure your actions communicate the same. With those two points, it's hard to go wrong.